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The Pinocchio Syndrome: Breathing life into "wooden" characters

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Old 12-03-2011, 10:56 AM
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Default The Pinocchio Syndrome: Breathing life into "wooden" characters

Originally written by Jillian Clayton

As a writer, have you ever been told your characters are "wooden" or two-dimensional? Some might call this problem the Pinocchio Syndrome – having soulless, puppet-like characters no reader can identify with. Whether a story is plot driven or character driven, your characters should engage the reader, gain empathy and at the same time move the plot forward. Ironically, in learning to further develop a character's personality, one of the best examples is found in Carlo Collodi's tale of Pinocchio.

In this famous (and rather dark) children's story, the marionette Pinocchio begins his life as a pine log. A log is probably the most basic of characters and yet Collodi gives Pinocchio a personality even before the character is truly "born." First, the reader is introduced to a magical log that sings and talks. As Geppetto works, the log cries out in pain, immediately eliciting empathy from readers. In his new form, Pinocchio begins to evolve, gaining all the attributes of a human boy. Collodi creates a multifaceted character from the "wooden" Pinnochio, with clever use of common human personality traits and actions. These traits are both internal and external, described in such a way that a mental connection is formed between the reader and the main character.

Personality Traits (Internal)
To make a character more lifelike, you must give him a personality. Personality traits, as used in fiction, are any aspect of a character described in terms of how he thinks, acts and in his general demeanor. For example, you can say your character is a scullery maid, but that isn't necessarily a personality trait. Being a scullery maid is what the character does, and though a person's job can say a lot, this is a character detail, not a personality trait. You can have two scullery maids with completely different personalities.

A personality trait could be any adjective you can think of: shy, fastidious, youth-obsessed, gregarious, rude, stupid, intelligent, and cowardly. The trick is in showing the readers these traits without overwhelming them with details. Some writers use a lengthy list called a Character Sketch to ask themselves questions about a given character. Your list doesn't need to be long. All you need are the basics of the character's personality (a "first impression") and then you can build upon your character as events unfold within your story.

Physical Traits (External)
Once you’ve sketched out a list of personality traits for your character, the next step is to give him a physical description. In addition to the usual physical stats like hair color, height, race, etc., you should include specific character details like a nervous tic, habits, employment (or lack thereof) and more. Try to avoid stereotypes (e.g., a dumb blonde secretary who is sleeping with her boss, or a New York City cop who always looks/acts like he just woke up from a three-day drinking binge). Keep your list handy, because you will need to refer to it often as your story or novel chapters develop. Some writers keep this information written on color-coded 3x5 cards for quick and easy referral.

A Checkered Past (Backstory)
Once your characters are up and moving within the story, add bits and pieces of who they are and how they came to be as you write. This method of adding in personal history is called Developing Backstory and helps clue the reader in on how your character might react to a given problem or situation. People who are new to writing fiction often give out this type of information in a big lump of narrative at the beginning of a story, usually within the first batch of paragraphs or by using a prologue. As a writing device, the prologue has become somewhat cliche in recent years, and unless you're writing fantasy or science fiction and need to "world-build" in a hurry, you're better off beginning with Chapter One. To prevent skimming (and the reader missing potentially important information about your characters), disburse backstory in small doses and only where it's needed. There are many forms in which this can be done -- entire books have been written on the subject -- but for our purposes here, there are two main ways to work in a character's history:

1. A flashback. This is defined as a short scene about a character's memory of a past event, normally used to clarify something similar occurring in the story's "present."

2. Oblique references. Describe the character's history using objects or other characters around them. An example of this might be a woman gazing at a collection of family photos on a mantelpiece and remembering various people and events affecting her in the past. Another might be a man refusing to get into a car, and when asked why, his wife relates a quick story about how he was involved in a rollover accident many years before, in which both of his parents were killed.

For an exercise, pick a room in your home where you spend the most time. There should be a good number of objects, furniture, and other things which serve as mementos of your past and at the same time represent the person you are today. Choose one object and think about where it came from, how and why you got it, as well as what prominent memories are tied to it. Consider then what a stranger might think of you if he stepped into your room and saw the same objects. Next, picture a scene where your character is going through a similar process of using a memento to call forth an ancient memory. As you can see, even simple setting information (contents of a room) can be very revealing when it comes to fine-tuning a character's personality.

To illustrate this process, we'll take a basic "wooden" character and flesh him out into a living, breathing person.

When you begin writing your story, use your first paragraphs to introduce your characters much as you would introduce yourself to another person in real life. Whenever you meet someone new, you automatically begin forming an opinion of them through a series of impressions you gather during conversation and observing their behavior. Let the same thing happen for your characters.

The best way for readers to get to know your characters is to watch them in action. We'll name this example character "Joe." Here’s a basic sentence about him:

Joe was an overweight gas station attendant who fell in love with a girl he knew he could never have.

This sentence tells you that Joe:

1. Is overweight
2. Works at a gas station
3. Falls in love with an unattainable girl.

Many new writers starting a story or novel will compose opening sentences very much like the one above. What's wrong with it, you might ask? This sentence is "told," not "shown," and the information given is far too vague. There's not much available to make you care about Joe. So, Joe is overweight, has a minimum-wage job and happens to have a crush on a hot girl who works there. Big deal. There are a million other people out there just like him. Remember, just because you might be able to see your character in your mind's eye, doesn't mean the reader can, too. Joe needs a little more description to help readers identify with him.

This time, let's add a few more sentences with choice adjectives and verbs to further flesh out our puppet. Here is a paragraph with more elaboration, based on the original sentence from above:

Joe worked at the Gas 'n Go. His coworkers were always teasing him about his weight and he hated it. When he arrived at work one morning, unbeknownst to Joe, his zipper split open as he strained to get out of his car. On his way to clock in, his boss, Sam, caught a glimpse of Joe’s private parts and commented that Joe’s "car was exiting the garage." Because his belly was so big, Joe couldn't see his zipper, but nevertheless he was instantly embarrassed. This unfortunate event happened right in front of the pretty girl who worked behind the snack counter. Joe blushed and covered his open zipper with his hands. He then hurried to the restroom to fix it.

In this revised paragraph, there is now a lot more information about Joe. It doesn't quite convey enough about him as a person, but you should now have a better idea of who Joe is and what he looks like. However, there's simply not enough description to help you relate to him. You might have a snicker or two at Joe's misfortune, but if laughter at this character's expense wasn't the intended reaction the writer wanted, then the paragraph truly doesn't work when it comes to eliciting emotion from the reader on Joe's behalf.

The reason is that the details about Joe (though plentiful) are again "told," not "shown." The description is delivered from a distant third-person perspective, almost as if Joe happened to pop up in a third-hand conversation as an anecdote. One might as well begin the paragraph with a sentence saying, "By the way, there once was this guy I knew named Joe..." To gain more empathy for him, we need to get inside his mind to create a mental connection with the reader. Through this connection, readers should begin forming opinions about Joe and become more interested in him as well as care what happens to him.

To enable empathy, be sure to firmly establish the point of view (POV) in which this scene will be told. A few questions to ask when deciding how to present a character:

1. How does your character think and speak (internally and externally)?
2. What is the character’s usual demeanor? (Grumpy, happy-go-lucky, etc.)
3. What do the other characters think of him?
4. What does he look like? How does he see himself?
5. What 'flaws' does he have?

One of the reasons Collodi's famous marionette is a good example of a multifaceted character is due to Pinocchio's flaws, the most notable being the nose that grows longer whenever he lies. Like people in real life, all characters must have flaws of some kind. They will make mistakes and then pay for them, creating even more obstacles they must overcome. Since we don't yet know about Joe's inner thought process, this means our puppet needs a little more refining. Below is a further enhanced and expanded version of the previous paragraph about Joe, now "shown" with an inner voice and perceptions, as well as a sprinkling of various character traits and flaws.

Joe stood outside the Gas 'n Go, wolfing down the last of three chili dogs he’d picked up on the way to work. He hesitated in front of the window. The new cashier, a wisp of a woman named Loretta, stood behind the counter. She was talking with Sam, the shop boss. Sam favored Loretta with his too-white, plastic smile and reached out to playfully chuck her under the chin. She recoiled and took a quick step backward, causing a strand of pale hair to come loose from beneath her cap. Joe finger-combed what few strands of hair remained on his balding pate and pushed in through the double doors. There was a small chance he could tiptoe by and get to the time-clock before Sam caught sight of him.

When Joe was about halfway across the store, his boss turned and stopped him with an upraised hand. "Hold on there, Porky. You’re late again." Sam then burst into laughter and pointed at Joe’s pants. "Well lookee here! Your Volkswagen’s rolled out of the garage."

Joe peered downward and saw nothing but belly. However, there was definitely a breeze blowing in where it shouldn’t be. His zipper was wide open. He groaned inwardly. Yes, he’d been in a hurry to get to work, but how could he have forgotten to put on his briefs? Then it occurred to him that if Sam could see Joe’s privates, Loretta could, too. Every drop of blood in Joe’s body rushed up into his face. To her credit, Loretta looked away, as if she developed a sudden interest in the cigarette display behind her. Joe clapped both of his hands over the front of his pants, stifled a sob and hurried off to the men’s restroom. He wasn't about to let Loretta see him cry. She'd seen more than enough already.

After reading about Joe the gas station attendant, you should now be able to picture what he looks like, how he thinks, what he does, how he might react in a given situation and more. In addition to his most prominent trait (his weight issues) Joe is:

1. Balding
2. Chronically late and forgetful
3. So used to criticism that he doesn't react to being called "Porky"
4. Bashful/shy, maybe even a little creepy
5. Attracted, as is his boss, to the cashier, Loretta.

With this information presented in such a manner, a reader should get a good view of Joe as a person with feelings. Again, the key is to touch on these aspects as the story progresses, allowing the character to evolve. The easiest way to enable reader empathy is to place a character in an uncomfortable situation that immediately reveals their most prominent personality traits. In the set of paragraphs above, Joe is made very uncomfortable and as a reader you can now judge him by how he handles the situation. Whether the initial impression of Joe is good or bad doesn't matter, it's the possibility of fundamental change that interests the reader. Joe may be a cowardly, unattractive, and creepy man, but if he's shown to have emotions and goals, he has the potential to become something better.

Too Many Puppets on a Stage

All stories are essentially "played out" before a reader and all the characters are "actors" with specific parts to deliver. Your secondary characters have wants, needs and goals, too; just make sure they tie in with the main plot and do not steal the spotlight from your main characters. Give each one something to do and a reason for being in the story. After all, if you were putting on a puppet show, you wouldn't want to have extra puppets hanging around with nothing to say or do, would you? When it comes to secondary and tertiary characters, a good rule to remember is this: if you're not going to use them, lose them.

Finally, try to keep your characters balanced. If "Joe" is incredibly good or extremely bad, he will come off as unrealistic. Even if there is no fundamental change for the main characters in your story, the potential for it must remain in play. When a character has opportunities for change, this appeals to readers because it reinforces their unconscious hope that their lives can transform too. Adding just the right amount of detail in the right places will not only humanize your characters, but will make them memorable – much like Collodi’s Pinocchio, the ultimate "wooden" character.

Twenty-year-old Marisa discovers her life is all a lie:
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